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Space crunch spurs talk of "new school'

The superintendent wants principals to brainstorm solutions to school crowding.

With enrollments surging in west Pasco and no affordable land on which to build a new high school, Pasco County school Superintendent John Long wants to figure out how the district can create a new school without actually building one.

Maybe it would be a new kind of night school. Perhaps it would involve learning over the Internet. Or maybe an alternative schedule could be created at one of the existing campuses.

Long isn't exactly sure what he's looking for, but he has asked principals to brainstorm ideas and he wants them thinking big.

The district's five-year enrollment projection shows that by 2005 Ridgewood and River Ridge high schools would both be home to at least 720 more students than they were designed to hold. Enrollment at Ridgewood could top 2,000 by then, and River Ridge (which also houses a middle school) could hit 3,700.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a proposal to give students at severely crowded public schools vouchers to attend private schools. And the state also is putting pressure on schools to eliminate portable classrooms.

The district is on the tail end of a $100-million school construction boom. Pasco has opened six schools in the past three years, and three more will open in August.

The district just opened J.W. Mitchell High in west Pasco, which relieved some of the crowding, but even its additional 2,000 seats won't be enough to alleviate the long-term problem in the neighborhoods served by River Ridge and Ridgewood. In fact, said Bob Dorn, the district administrator in charge of middle and high schools, Mitchell High is expected to reach capacity in the next several years.

"The feasibility of having a new high school in (west Pasco) is a real, real long shot if not an impossibility," Dorn said.

Knowing that Long wants to find an alternate solution, he asked principals at a meeting this week to start thinking of ways to do it.

Every day, hundreds of students leave school early for jobs, volunteer programs and advanced classes at local community colleges. Long wants principals to figure out if those students could be somehow consolidated into a new school that would meet at a time other than the traditional school day.

For principals like Ridgewood's Art O'Donnell, it means a chance to try to shake up a class schedule of 50-minute periods that has ruled schools for decades.

"We have kids who work jobs until midnight and athletes who don't get home from games until midnight and they just aren't awake" when school starts, O'Donnell said. "What we really need to do is create a different kind of school."

Long said he has no timetable for his "new school" idea. It's just an idea at this point, but he said he thinks it's one that deserves some serious consideration.

"I told the principals that I wanted them really thinking "out of the box,' " he said.